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Four Tips for Cross-Sector Collaboration

Harvard University - Kelly DeLay
Harvard University. Photo via Kelly DeLay

This week, I was very honored to address the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship pilot program on “The Art and Science of System Change” at the Harvard Kennedy School. It’s a wonderfully diverse group of entrepreneurs who all care deeply about maximizing their impact across a range of steep challenges.

I’m fortunate to know some of them from prior work, some as Rockefeller Foundation collaborators—like Anne Shongwe of Afroes, an online platform for digital work in our Digital Jobs Africa initiative—and some from other contexts, like Dr. Ashifi Gogo, who serves with me on the WEF Global Agenda Council for Social Innovation. The energy was tremendous and the participants seemed to be learning so much from each other’s successes and challenges, regardless of whether the problems they were trying to solve were similar or not.

I was asked to focus on cross-sector collaboration, a topic I’m particularly interested in, in part because I’ve spent time in academia, the private sector, and the social sector, and have seen the challenges of partnership from different angles. It’s also an essential role that we see Rockefeller playing as we work to drive social innovation and change systems at scale and in a sustainable manner.

Given that this was a pretty advanced group, I tried to share what I believe are some counterintuitive lessons:

  • Partnership is less about creating similarities than it is about embracing differences. It’s critical for partners to understand what they do really well and then work with those who complement them. Too often collaborations require alignment in values and approaches for reasons having more to do with ideologies about process rather than commitment towards goals.
  • A specific goal is more useful than a common cause. General causes like “improve water quality” or “prevent homelessness” are important for mobilizing broad awareness. But they don’t help collaboration. It’s much more useful to frame specific goals like “ensure every homeless person in cities A, B, and C has access to existing services”. This filters out those who have general interest from those who see how their organizational goals can support these specific goals.
  • Do real work together early to build familiarity and trust. Everyone is in a hurry when a partnership finally gets launched, and the temptation is to divide and conquer to demonstrate early progress and quick wins. However, every cross-sector partnership will run into significant challenges down the road due to differences in culture, decision-making, risk tolerance, resource availability, and other factors. Those important but unpredictable challenges can best be addressed when there’s trust to draw upon—and that trust is best created when people work together early and spend time learning about each other.
  • Finally, I talked about how system-wide disruptive changes are integrated with a whole series of incremental changes from big actors. The reality is that the default of most organizations is to resist change. That’s sometimes hard for social entrepreneurs to digest, given that they live and breathe change. But one of the reasons big actors are big is because they have optimized their operations to be highly effective and efficient. If you change their goals, they lose that productivity. Much better to figure out how to harness existing capabilities in service of new goals than to hope for new capabilities.

We had a very interesting conversation about these points—especially the last one, because it hit at the central question they are wrestling with: what are the tensions between being a social entrepreneur and growing your organization and being a change agent within a system of other actors?

That led to a very frank and open discussion about the challenges they face in their roles, some very good and provocative questions about the role of funders and their bias for what’s new, and what can be borrowed from the private sector and what can’t.

I can’t possibly do justice to the richness of the conversation, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments: what’s the best way for social entrepreneurs to drive system change?

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